Room

Women have always done it, unrecognised, hidden. And even once allowed, we deny it, because being allowed in itself takes something away. Who offers the permit, and do I want it anyway? I may continue in secret. No-one will know, either way.

it’s warm and dark red and the woosh-thump-woosh-thump’s always there, and I’m on my own/never alone safe warm nourished part of you and that’s all I want and ever need

jerked screaming, fighting every push and brutal squeeze, too bright, too hard, can’t go back, let me back let me back, let me in … skin touch soft warm fill me keep me safe together

I have a room where I go and close the door so no-one can reach me. It seems like I’ve had it forever, but there must have been a first time that I discovered it. Everything has a beginning …

rewind until I can hear her screaming at me, until she’s grasping my wrist, and I’ve done something wrong and I don’t know what still don’t know, and her breath smells and I look up into her eyes and know that I’ll never be right so I need to vanish. I stand still, her bone-witch fingers surrounding my wrist, and as she shouts down at me I can’t move. Tell me it will be okay, but there’s no-one else but me and her and brick by brightly coloured brick I build until I vanish. I’m gone where she can’t touch me anymore and that’s when I find my room.

Ten years on, my room has materialised. I learned to read and a door opened into somewhere I never knew existed. I can retreat until I don’t hear the screaming anymore. And when I’m all wrong, don’t fit it, don’t get the joke, can’t play with us, my room’s still there, where I can’t be touched. John Peel’s on the radio, though, and I believe that somewhere there’s a way out.

In time, I discover that I was right, and I pretend the room’s gone. I watch as the sky fades, blue, green gold, to darkness, setting sun, silhouetted trees and chimneys. I’m in the attic, real room of my own. Mismatch thrift shop furniture and peeling wallpaper spell freedom. Rent paid, I can enter and leave when I want. I lie on the worn grey carpet and reward myself for each page I write, each sunset I paint.

At night we drink and smoke and dance and the music’s louder than my heartbeat, until the sky lightens from navy to turquoise again. Milk fresh on the doorstep, we stumble back indoors. And later when I’m heaving the night into the toilet, my t-shirt clings against my skin, and I go to my room, but I’m not telling anyone. I creep in, furtive, would never tell, never share, can’t admit that the room’s still there.

I’m spent, another night, red wine in jugs you can’t tell how much you drink and we were laughing so hard my throat’s sore and my ears still hear the music and now it’s all stopped, and I’m chilled, skin clammy, but inside my head is quiet and I’m not dangling on the edge of madness, won’t see a counsellor, see her, won’t see her again.

Another ten. I’d get up if I could but the gap in my symphysis pubis is too large, and the baby stretches my belly, I’m seventeen stone at my biggest, and my mind has slowed like my steps. The sun shines in, cats rolling on the golden carpet. My world has titrated down to one room, can’t diminish any further, but it’s not the room I was thinking of.

I’m never alone, and it’s eating me and I want to be one, own, me, gone, and the drugs take the edge off and gradually I claw back a tiny place that’s my room. I can sit still, feed the baby, watch birds in the garden and think. There’s something new, though, and it glows green as I realise I’m not allowed to be alone.

Maybe the end should have been when I delivered the baby, but I’ve found that’s not an end. And now, behind a barrier of books, I am rebuilding my room, stealing back moments to write. My desk is tall, broad, blue-stained, grain of the wood still visible, family photos backdrop my thoughts. Does time need to be scarce so I write every word?

Mum, mum, I need a drink, did you get more eggs, can you wipe my bottom, can you drop the car at the garage, what’s for tea, I’m going to be late, can you help me with my homework, you never told me it was parents’ evening, where’s my socks, I need a lift, is there more cake, he’s got all the socks, that’s mine, I want it, it’s not fair, I want, it’s not fair, I want, I want, I want …

Short fiction: Iris if

flower-874980_640‘If I were a butterfly …’
She scowls at the page. It’s worse than ‘What I did on my holidays’. Everyone else seems to be writing: faces to pages, pens to paper, words flowing.
“Stop looking out of the window, Iris!”
Mr Martin always has a down on her, she thinks as she turns back to the blank page. He’s walking closer, coming to check what she’s done. ‘If I were a butterfly’, she writes, ‘I’d be dead by winter’. Dead. Flat on the pavement, delicate scaled wings scraping against the concrete, smeared by thoughtless shoes. Or worse: pinned in a collection like the one in the museum. She glances around the classroom and wonders: would that really be so much worse than being pinned to this desk, day after day, one of thirty specimens? ‘British school child, age fifteen, local variations in school uniform’, just as the Victorian collectors laid out their butterflies. She has drifted again, hand still, eyes focussing across the field.

“Iris! Do you want to have to stay after class to finish your work?”
Her gaze drops, but her mind is full of green grass, chasing the daisies that start where the playing field ends. A row of lime trees mark the boundary between the school and the uncut meadow where fritillaries and cabbage whites dance with buttercups and poppies.
‘If I were a butterfly,’ she writes again, ‘I wouldn’t be here. I’d be out in the sunshine, making the most of every second of my short life!’
“Iris!” Mr Martin shouts.  “Where’s that girl going?”
But the words grow faint in Iris’s ears as she pelts down the corridor, through the doors, across the sports field, over the fence by the lime trees and into the meadow.

Christmas Fiction

“So you’re Mary?” Mrs Landers’ smile was wide as the doorway. “Come on in and get yourself warm.” She glanced through the open door. “Looks like there’s snow in those clouds. It’d be nice to have a white Christmas, wouldn’t it?”

“’M warm enough.” Mary slouched into the room, carrier bag in her hand. “S’not exactly the Ritz in here is it?”

“Don’t be rude, Mary,” Angela said, shuffling through her papers. “Beggars can’t be choosers, and if you will run away on Christmas Eve, well, it’s not like we can put you on the next bus home. Even if we trusted you not to get off at the first stop. You’ll be warm and safe here, until we can get your dad to collect you.”

Mary slumped on the chair, letting her lank mouse blond hair fall over her face. “He won’t bother. I told you not to try calling him. He’s been on at me since I …” She glanced down at her stomach, a curved dome bursting out from her anorak. “Never mind.” She picked at her nail, wishing she was different, smarter, older. She looked around the room. No point trying to run, she was too slow now. She’d let them think she was staying and work out how to find him later.

“Right, I’m off. Mrs Landers will show you your room.” Angela pulled her fluffy white coat round her as she left.

Mrs Landers’ cheerful voice filled the silence. “So we’re quiet here, this Christmas, just you and me and Bruno.”

“Thought you only took girls, that’s what she said.”

“Bruno, well, I don’t think Angela’s ever really taken to him. She says I should keep him out the back in his kennel when I’ve got visitors, but you don’t mind dogs, do you?”

Mary raise her head a fraction, glancing at Mrs Landers through her long fringe. It was just another day, another place to stay, and all she had to do was get through Christmas. “S’pose. Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“He was going to be put down, too big for most homes they said at Battersea. And I’m a pushover for waifs and strays.” She flushed, her cheeks matching the rose of her jumper. “Not that you’re … come and see your room, lovey.”

 

Mary sat, sullen and quiet, through dinner. “Not really hungry,” she’d said when it was served up, but she cleared her plate, first good meal she’d had, she thought back, since it all blew up, since she couldn’t hide it any more. Bruno lay beside her all the way through the meal, and she didn’t think Mrs Landers noticed when she slipped him some of her chicken.

She watched the television without a word, though Mrs Landers chatted the whole way through the EastEnders special. The big dog lay sprawled at Mary’s feet on the rug that used to be cream with pink flowers but was now tired and grey.

“Ah,” Mrs Landers said as it finished and the news came on. “We won’t watch that. All a bit gloomy, isn’t it. Now it’s time to turn in, lovey. You going to come upstairs?”

Mary shifted in the big armchair with the tattered floral covers. “Dunno. In a bit.” She needed time to herself, time to find a way to contact Joe.

“Come on. You need to get your sleep in before the baby comes.”

Mary let herself be chivvied upstairs. She didn’t get changed. She lay down, waiting, but she couldn’t get comfortable on the single bed, and her body ached. Too long sitting on the bus to London, she thought, and all to no avail. It was the police who’d picked her up, right outside the bus station, hadn’t believed her when she said she was sixteen already, took her phone off her, delivered her straight to social services.

She gave up trying to get comfortable, and slipped out onto the landing. She knew his phone number, and Mrs Landers looked like the sort to still have an old fashioned home phone. She paused outside the woman’s bedroom door. It was ajar, and she could hear slow, steady breaths, so she carried on downstairs. She hadn’t seen a phone in the living room, so she went through to the kitchen. As she passed through the doorway she had to grip the frame as a shard of pain ran through her.

Shouldn’t have eaten so much, she thought, drawing in breath to try and ease the stabbing. Bruno nuzzled round her feet, his shoulders level with her thighs, and she was glad she wasn’t alone. She wouldn’t be alone, wouldn’t be here for much longer if she could get hold of Joe. He’d come and get her, and by morning they’d be gone, and by tomorrow no-one would be able to drag her back home. Her gaze alighted on the old cream plastic phone. She listened for a second, then picked it up and dialled.

“Joe? It’s me. … I know. Brixton. 17 Lansdowne Way. I know it’s miles. … Great! I’ll wait down here.”

Maybe she should have gone back up for a bit, it would take him more an hour to get there from Enfield, but her stomach was cramping, her back ached, and she didn’t want to have to go up, just to come down again. She couldn’t put the telly on, it might wake Mrs Landers, so instead she paced up and down, stopping every few minutes as another cramp grabbed her. Bruno followed, back and forth round the small living room, his big brown eyes watching her.

“Come on, Joe,” she said, voice low. She gripped the back of an armchair. The pains were getting worse, and she was starting to get an inkling that it wasn’t the chicken pie. She just needed to hang on until Joe got there.

Finally, an engine roared to a halt outside the house, the sound cut out, then there was a tap on the door. She waited until the contraction slowed then opened it and flung her arms round the lanky young man.

As they separated she said, “It’s snowing!”

“I had to go slow, nearly came off the bike a couple of times. Where’ve you been, Mary? I waited and waited at Victoria station but you never showed, never answered you phone. I thought you’d changed your mind.”

“Doesn’t matter. We need to go. Oh!” She leaned on him as her womb clenched.

“What’s up?”

“The baby. We need to go home, now.”

Joe turned, scanning the whitening street. “We can’t, Mary. You can’t go on the bike like this. What if the baby came on the way back?”

“What’s all this?” Mrs Landers had come down the stairs, pink dressing gown wrapped round her, “Come in off the doorstep and I’ll put the gas fire on. Now who are you, young man?”

Things blurred after that, glow of the gas fire warm on her face as she knelt on the carpet, pain seizing her body. She could hear Mrs Landers, anxious voiced, on the phone, “No, I see. I know. As soon as you can.”

“It’s coming, Joe. It’s coming and we haven’t gone home yet.” Joe’s hand was warm on her back, Bruno beside her.

“It’s okay, Mary. We’ll be fine. You should see the place I’ve got. It’s small, but it’ll be enough for you and me and …”

Another pain seized her and his words were lost as she gripped his hand.

“I’ve called the ambulance, lovey, but they say the roads are getting worse. Can you hang in there?”

“Don’t, … think … I … can …”

She could feel it, tearing, burning as the head crowned.

“Aahhh!”

“Just a bit more, lovey, I’ve got a towel ready when he comes.”

She pushed, kept pushing until, with a sense of relief, the baby slipped out of her body.

“There you go, lovey. You hold him now.”

Mary smiled as she put the baby in her arms. Joe leaned over and put his arm round her. “That’s my girl,” he said.

Mrs Landers went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Mary could see the flakes falling thicker and faster now.

“Going to take a while for the ambulance, lovey.”

“It doesn’t matter now. She’s here, we’ve got our little girl.”

“I don’t know what that Angela is going to say. And your parents!”

“It doesn’t matter.” She looked at Joe. “What time is it?”

He checked his phone and grinned. “Just gone midnight. Happy birthday, Mary.”

 

First draft: Artist

He stares at the brush, at the row of primary coloured paint pots on the table in front of him. Ask him to cover a wall in magnolia and he knows what to do. Tell him to paint on paper and he is floored. Flawed. That’s why he’s here, flaws too large to cover with paint or paper, no amount of filler will…

“Go on. Paint whatever you want.”

He doesn’t want, stopped wanting months back, maybe years. She holds it out to him, chubby handled wooden brush, fine bristles metal bound, OT written in black marker in case he wants to take it out of the room. Wants. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s still staring at the brush when she comes round again, places her hand on his, warm on cold, her soft skin on his callouses. A shiver runs through him.

“Which colour?” she asks, but she’s already guiding the brush to the yellow. “Just make a mark. It’s sometimes the first stroke that’s the hardest. Just let it flow from there.” And the paint trails from the brush, down the side of the pot, across the table and the paper is instantly marred. If there had been something that he had wanted to paint, it would have to fit with the fresh streak of sunshine that has been forced upon the page. Not his mark, and she’s moving on now, talking to the man across the room who has clearly been before. He is working on a half started canvas, making purple marks that, if he squints, might be flowers.

He stares at his page, paint continuing it’s sprawl without his input, drips falling from the brush. Spoilt.

“What about some blue?”

She’s back, and he pushes into her touch this time, until she forces the sunshine brush into the pot of blue, yellow smears into the pristine darkness.

“No!” He jerks his hand away, brush still in blue, jar teetering, tipping. Blue paint spreads, runs to the edge of the table and he backs away, chair scraping until he stands and it falls. She’s looking at him. The flower painter has paused to look too, brush in the air and Sam’s gaze is suspended as the purple paint pools on the end of the brush, until enough has moved to form a drop which falls, and movement starts again

“I’ll get a cloth,” she says. “Never mind. Accidents happen.”

He stands as she wipes.

“It’s okay. Just a spill.

Look, I’ve cleared it up.

Try again.

Do you want a clean piece of paper?”

The phrases brush the surface of his mind, and he watches her put a blank sheet on the table. She doesn’t try to put a brush in his hand this time, doesn’t try to touch him again. He’s still standing, can’t sit, can’t be here, can’t listen to her encouraging murmurs which build until he lunges forwards, swipes at the paint until the pots spin across the table, paint flies, crimson drips falling to the floor, on his hand, his shirt, as he stumbles back and the chair seizes at his ankles. He crumples and all he can see is red.

Disappearing people

She signed her maiden name for the last time, though her maidenhood had vanished seven years ago. In his car, fumbled condoms, new understanding of guilt mixed with thrill and disappointment. Why you haven’t got married before now I don’t know, her mother had said in the run up to the wedding.

She held her hand still, pen touching the paper, because when she lifted it, it would be done. Done, gone, whatever.

Her mother. Was she still her Mam? Brigid Kelly didn’t exist anymore. Her mother had named her, her father had gone, gone already, gone again. He kept departing throughout her childhood, constant in his unannounced goings. She thought that if she could see the pattern, spot the shift in violence, the element in the argument, the one word too many, that one more drink that let him release, she might understand, she might be able to control it. She might be able to avert his hand, close Mam’s mouth as she played her role, stop the slap and that step and the next one. She never worked it out, and it was right that he was absent today too.

“You’re making a blot,” the registrar said, so she lifted her hand and waited to see if anything changed, waited to see if she was still here. She’d read a joke once. What can travel faster than light? The answer was monarchy. It wasn’t funny, so maybe it was a riddle, not a joke. She waited to see if, in the moment of signing her name, like the moment of a king’s death, something passed at speed. Where had Brigid Kelly gone? Had she gone? Did she feel the same?  Her skin prickled.

She looked down at the ink sprawling across the page, black on white. And it spread across her dress, oyster silk shimmering into a negative, and Eoghan’s hair was white, not brown, his skin greyed out, hers too.

Maria’s hand touched her arm. “Bree?”

She blinked, and wondered if it had all happened already, perhaps she’d missed it, too wrapped in saying ‘I do’. Maybe Brigid had left ten minutes ago and no-one had noticed, not even …not even … who was she then?

Brigid Kelly.

He called her Bree now, all her friends did. Brigid had been her grandmother’s name, and even she had always been Bridie. Brigid slipped away from her too. It had been a shock when she heard her own name at the funeral, time after time, by an unknowing priest.

Now she was Bree Smith.

She pushed away from the table, her dress catching on the chair.

“Just pick up the pen again, love, one for the camera.”

They hadn’t even captured it on film, the moment Brigid Kelly vanished. She had to do it again. Fake pose, imitation smile, counterfeit signature. What could she sign away now? She saw the ink at the tip of the pen, the blot on the page that had already obliterated Brigid Kelly’s last traces. If she touched it again, would she connect?

“Come on Mrs Smith. Smile please.”

Mrs Smith. New name, new person. Maternal bulges in a worn tweed, shopping bags, something nice for his tea, love. She shook her head.

“Just Bree,” she said, and forced a smile to slide across her wedding make up.

Writing exercise: prompt from opening sentence

Head high, she swept out of the room. A second later, head even higher, she swept back in, snatched up the money and was gone again.
Tom glanced at Jane.
Jane shrugged.
Not my daughter – he could almost hear her thoughts. He sighed, raised his eyebrows, then stood.
“Right, let’s go. Kelly can meet us there when she’s ready.”
“If she wants, “Jane said.”Don’t make her.”
Don’t make things more difficult: more words they couldn’t say. He took Jane’s hand. “Is the Italian going to be all right?”
“It’s fine. I don’t feel that sick any more, in fact, I’m hungry!”


In the car on the way to the restaurant, he said, “Do you think she’ll …?” then he stopped.
“Meet us there? Buy her Mum a gift? Just give her time, Tom, she’s a good kid.”
“I know, but she’s angry right now.”
“It isn’t easy – new house, new step mum and now,” she glanced down, “new baby brother or sister.”
Tom half-smiled. “I heard her on the phone to a friend – apparently it’s gross!”
“The baby?”
“The thought that we’re having sex!”
Jane laughed at him. “I remember feeling like that when Mum got pregnant with Lucy, I was 12 then, not quite as old as Kelly.”

They were sitting near the window, menus open, drinks on the table, one space still vacant. The waiter lingered nearby and Tom looked at his watch. “We should order.”
“Give her a few minutes more,” Jane said. “Look, there she is!” Kelly was hurrying up the path to the restaurant, her arms full. “I think she’s got her Mum something too.”
Tom exhaled. Mothers’ Day might be going to work out.
Kelly burst into the restaurant, then thrust her package at Jane. “Happy Mothers’ Day.”
Jane flushed, then started to open her gift.
As she did, Kelly said, “Dad, I need more cash to get a gift for Mum!”

For the Book Analyst Writing Group

Nikki Young Writes
mumturnedmom

Exercise: Writing from Two Points of View 1

POV 1
She could see him, still in the hall, jacket on.
“Are you stopping, Daniel?” she called. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
She filled her hands with cups and saucers, the little set they found at that fair up past Whitby. It had been a bargain, even if it had been hard to keep it intact, two teenagers and a five year old in the house.
She glanced into the hall again. It was hard to match up the ruddy cheeked five year old, always trying to keep up with his brothers, with the six foot man who was hesitating out there. It wasn’t like Daniel to dither she thought as she placed the cups out carefully. She poured boiling water into the matching teapot, swirled it, tipped it out and refilled it, all the time fending off the fear that Daniel was hesitating for a reason.
‘Mum’s always together’, she’d heard one of the boys say, and she did keep it together, for them, but this year, last year, … she couldn’t word what had happened, still too raw. She ran the back of a finger under her eyelashes and glanced into the hall again. He seemed lost in thought and she was glad Tony was down in the garage.
She carried the pot and cups over to the table, laid them just so, appreciating the glow of the apricot china against the pale yellow Formica surface. She’d managed to keep that nice, no stains and not too many scratches. Daniel stepped forward, stopped, and then finally came into the kitchen.
“Mum. I need to tell you something.”

POV 2
He found her in the kitchen, had sought her out there where she was most her, most at home, most likely to accept. Dad was at work, he’d seen Sam head in to the hospital, knew Lucy was in nursery, the children in school. No reason to be interrupted, he turned off his phone. He’d had it on for months, it seemed, waiting for the next call, the next sign that the family was disintegrating. This time, he was choosing to deliver the blow, choosing to risk pushing everything a little further apart.
“Are you stopping in the hall, Daniel?” Mum called. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
“K.” He didn’t walk on, though, still waiting for some sign, some clarity. Sam had said it was fine. Fine: who needed approval? Dan sighed. He did, or he wouldn’t still be here in the hall, wouldn’t be hovering, waiting to tell, to ask. What happened if she said that she didn’t believe him, it couldn’t be true? Or worse, what if she believed him, and thought it was wrong. It didn’t fit with their faith, for sure. But maybe that was in head, there were gay Catholics, after all. He could almost hear Sam’s voice, saying, “You’re overthinking it.”
He shook himself, took a step forward. King of overthinking: that was Sam, not him. For a second he wished he’d brought Sam down too, for back up, to diffuse things if it looked like Mum was going to blow up. But she wasn’t like that, and he could do this. On his own.
“Mum. I need to tell you something.”

For the Book Analyst Writing Group